When everything we thought was solid crumbles, we retrieve from our hearts the stories that calm, heal, and empower us to hope for a better tomorrow. Twenty years ago, in a heartbeat, the Big Apple shrunk to a core of danger, destruction, and death. The safe world dissolved as gritty smoke hung like dirty curtains over the brilliant, crisp blue skies. The usual New York City hum of culture and commerce stopped. The reporters pieced together news stories about monstrous terrorists, capitalist castles, military citadels, jets turned into missiles, and a plane crash in Pennsylvania where the brave passengers and crew thwarted the hijackers.
News stories shape our perceptions of self, others, and our communities. To prevent the dead from merging into a faceless cold number too large to envision and, therefore, impossible to mourn as individuals, reporters mentioned friends, colleagues, and family members whenever possible. Human-interest writers focused on our spiritual and communal ties. To this day, movies, articles, and books extol the steadfastness of 9/11 first responders.
Storytelling is as natural and vital as breathing, and so we take it for granted. Walter Fisher coined the term, “Homo narrans,” to express our need to tell stories.[i] This essay considers the power of ordinary people’s anecdotes to revive our hopes, despite the vortex of bad news whirling around us. The friend narratives in 9/11 coverage surface as a few sentences, profiles of survivors, touching details, or tributes to individuals for whom friendship mattered more than personal safety.
Like bards, journalists translated shock and disbelief into a meaningful narrative, despite the vanishing of thousands of victims. In 9/11 coverage, mentions of friends reminded us that love prevails over fear and desolation. Reports of people leaping from the flaming buildings contained symbolic images that we associate with love, like jumpers holding hands. They faced their moment of terror together, thus proving that human connections give us the strength to face our fate. The fire forced victims to take a billion to one risk, which offered better odds than the flames. Perhaps they held hands as they stepped off the windowsill, not intending to commit suicide, but knowing only a miracle could save them. The cool blue sky offered fresh air, a commodity no longer available in the inferno. They did not die alone.
Death does not end our feelings for lost loved ones. Beyond New York City, many people also grieved for 9/11 victims. Local newspapers print anniversary stories about these souls. For example, in Fargo, ND, Al Marchand’s wife, two sons, and friends still mourn, recalling him fondly as kind, smiling, cute, funny, and outgoing. “He fit in with every group.”[ii] Marchand died while working as a flight attendant on United Flight 175. “At 9:03 a.m., the plane, traveling at about 590 mph with 10,000 gallons of jet fuel, crashed into the south tower . . . That was just 17 minutes after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower. All 65 people aboard United Flight 175 died on impact, while about 640 people were killed instantly in the south tower.”[iii]
Personal Stories Give Numbers Meaning
Not even the collapse of Tower One as they fled prevented Christian Waugh (a firefighter with Ladder Company 5) and his men from bringing out the body of the first official fatality of 9/11, fire department chaplain Mychal Judge. “He was a great man. Anybody who needed help, he was there to help them. I think I was saved because of him. Me helping carrying him out, I got out of the building. I give him that credit for saving me. He was by my side.”[iv]
Sometimes friendships made at work save lives. Two decades ago, Joe Massian handled tech questions for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He was unpacking his laptop from his backpack when the first plane hit. Everybody except Theresa rushed to the exits. Massian pulled her to her feet as panic turned her to stone. Another friend helped steer her, and the trio walked down 70 flights of steps, stopping occasionally to allow firefighters to pass. Outside, as they took Theresa to an ambulance to get oxygen and water, they saw both towers burning, heard a loud pop, and joined the human stampede down the street. Later, in Massian’s midtown office, “everybody stands up, and they’re all crying, and I ask why. It’s like, ‘well, because you’re on the internet and now you’re here’.”[v]
When their colleagues fled, two men in wheelchairs wished them well. About 40 floors in World Trade Center Tower One separated Ed Beyea and John Abruzzo, but their friendship stories inspired people around the world.
Abruzzo’s 10 pals took turns carrying him in a combination sled and chair 69 floors to the lobby and then lifted him through a broken window. They ran with Abruzzo all the way to Stuyvesant High School. He survived; amazingly, 9/11 was the second time Abruzzo’s buddies had saved him. When terrorists bombed the parking garage below Tower One in 1993, Gerald Simpkins, who helped rescue Abruzzo 18 years later, with assistance from two friends, carried him from floor 69 to a bank on the 55th floor where firefighters took over. Their concern for Abruzzo led to the invention of the chair that saved six lives on September 11, 2001.[vi]
“‘I’ve been working at the Port Authority for 19 years, and I’ve known most of them for that entire time,’ Abruzzo says. He knows their spouses, watched their children grow up. ‘They had an awful lot to lose. I don’t know what to say. Thanks? That’s not enough for what they did. It’s unbelievable.’”[vii]
Beyea’s story does not end happily, but it illustrates the power of friendship as well as the compassion that drives first responders to risk their lives serving others. Beyea broke his neck on July 4, 1981, at his 22nd birthday party when he dove from a carport into a swimming pool. He was paralyzed from his neck down. With help from his aide, Irma Fuller, he commuted three hours every day after starting a job as a computer programmer at Empire Blue Cross/Blue Shield in the World Trade Center in 1989. In a nearby cubicle, he met chief technical application specialist Avremel Joseph Zelmanowitz (Abe). They quickly became buddies. With Irma, the pals dined after work two or three times each month.
On September 11, Zelmanowitz, an Orthodox Jew, hugged his brother, Jack, after prayer services at Shaare Zion. Jack wondered about the uncustomary show of emotion. As people urged Abe to leave the doomed tower, he replied, “I am staying with my friend.”[viii] Beyea, a Christian, weighed 300 pounds. His heavy wheelchair could not negotiate the only stairwell escape. They sent Fuller for help, telling her to leave the towers. The friends waited for four or five sturdy rescuers to carry Beyea. New York City Fire Capt. Billy Burke found the pals after ordering his Engine 21 crew to exit. He stayed with Beyea and Zelmanowitz to end.
At a National Day of Prayer gathering, President Bush praised Abe Zelmanowitz’s dedication to Beyea. “One man who could have saved himself stayed until the end at the side of his quadriplegic friend.”[ix] People all over the planet heard the story. Some contacted the Zelmanowitz family. “To find such goodness in the midst of evil…is like a ray of hope for humanity,” an Australian said.[x]
In bleak moments, friendship guides us to the saving light that restores our belief in ourselves and faith in humanity. We preserve our narratives about bad times because they remind us that the forces of chaos cannot destroy our need for one another. Bombs, winds, and other horrors flatten our tallest buildings, kill the innocent among us, and break our hearts. Nevertheless, we gain wisdom from our ancestors’ stories and feel hopeful. Naturally, then, Homo Narrans shapes a better tomorrow out of kindness, empathy, and integrity.
About the author: Paulette D. Kilmer is an author and professor of narrative journalism writing, ethics, and media history at the University of Toledo. Her research interests focus on the connections between narrative, myth, social justice, and history.
Featured image: Memorial for the victims of the September 11th terrorist attack on the World Trade Center; Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by David Finn, reproduction number LC-DIG-ppmsca-01936.
[i] Walter Fisher, Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.
[ii] Jim Shaw, “20 years later, wife, friends mourn flight attendant from Fargo killed in 9/11 terror attacks,” Brainerd Dispatch at https://ww.brainerddispatch.com/community/people/7189687-20-years-later-wife-friends-mourn-flight-attendant-from-Fargo-killed-in-911-terror-attacks
[iii] Shaw, “20 years later.”
[iv] “9/11 20 years later: ‘I’m the face of it’: the people whose images came to define 9/11 reflect on the day,” September 11, 2001, The Guardian at https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/sep/11/photographs-september-11-anniversary
[v] “9/11 20 years later: ‘I’m the face of it,’” The Guardian.
[vi] Shelby Danielsen, “Jacksonville woman explains why men in iconic 9/11 ground zero photos are heroes,” Firstcoastnews.com (Jacksonville, Florida) at https://www.firstcoastnews.com/article/news/local/jacksonville-woman-explains-why-men-in-iconic-911-ground-zero-photos-are-heroes/77-9509d5a4-c661-43d0-f-290c82b30808
[viii] Bob Heleringer, “9/11: The story of Ed, Abe, and Capt. Billy,” Op-Ed, Louisville Courier Journal, Sept. 7, 2016, at https://courier-journal.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/09/06/911-story-ed-abe-and-capt-billy/89736926/
[ix] Byzek and Gilmer, “September 11, 2001: A Day to Remember.”
[x] Byzek and Gilmer, “September 11, 2001: A Day to Remember.”